This came about as a result of some questions asked on the CHNI forum, from a few people who are seriously considering conversion to Catholicism.
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I struggle with this and don't know what to make of it. I hear or read Catholics make comments or prayers to Mary that seem over the top. I can understand the idea of asking Mary to intercede for us, but sometimes the praise and prayers given to her seem to take the place of God. Things like 'Mary saves us' or when prayer is directed to her saying we give our heart to Mary or asking Mary to do whatever the request is - as though she herself has the power to grant our request. In the past I've put this down to Marian devotion gone wrong, but then I've also read Catholic explanations for these types of prayers or praise along the lines of 'well, that's not really what we mean' - to which I tend to respond 'then say or pray what you mean' - speak & say according to your actual theology. To do otherwise seems like mental gymnastics, or dancing around the issue semantically - and not quite honest. I feel like it's misleading to pray or praise Mary in terms that in a non-Catholic's mind should be reserved for God alone.
This is especially difficult when the comments are from Pope Benedict XVI: "We implore you to have pity today on the nations that have gone astray, on all Europe, on the whole world, that they might repent and return to your heart." It almost seems to undermine the whole persuasive argument for the fullness of truth being found in the Catholic Church. This is a huge stumbling block to me and the last few days has felt like a complete roadblock on the journey I've been on back towards the Catholic faith. I know this may sound angry, but I need some good answers & honesty without someone dancing around this issue with words. Thanks.
Good and fair questions. I hit the specific issue you inquire about head on in this paper, and explain the language in context (which is rarely considered by our severe critics):
Does St. Alphonsus de Liguori, in The Glories of Mary, Teach That Mary is "Above God" and Can "Manipulate God"? (Corrections of Protestant Misunderstandings of Catholic Mariology)
Now, to start from scratch (if that is possible) in explaining Catholic Mariology, my own papers that I recommend first to people are the following:
The Imitation of Mary
"All Have Sinned . . . " (Mary?)
I'd be more than happy to address any further questions you might have. I think the main difficulty you are expressing can probably be adequately explained, for the most part, in terms of:
1) Flowery, poetic language that is not intrinsically literal in nature or intent.
2) Interpreting the words in context (especially a Christological context).
3) Taking into account the many less or inadequately educated Catholics who don't understand the fine distinctions in Catholic theology. They aren't helping matters any.
4) Protestants have so minimized and underemphasized Mary and have categorized any devotion to her in terms of rank idolatry, and this has so penetrated the entire Christian community (especially in Protestant-to-the-bone North America), that now virtually any devotion at all can seem to be excessive, because of the stark contrast. We all (bar none) pick up influences from our surroundings.
1 Corinthians 9:22 I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
[Paul "saves" other people]
1 Timothy 4:16 Take heed to yourself and to your teaching: hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
Doesn't Paul know that only God can save??!!!]
Philippians 2:12b-13 . . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
[If someone says that God is mentioned in the second part, the Calvinist "monergist" still has to explain how a human being can participate at all in what only God can do (according to the monergist) ]
2 Corinthians 4:15 For it [his many sufferings: 4:8-12,17] is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
Ephesians 3:2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you...
Ephesians 4:29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.
[Paul distributes divine grace, just as we believe Mary does, and teaches that others can do the same]
St. Peter also joins in this folly of teaching that Christians can distribute divine grace to each other:
1 Peter 4:8b-10 . . . love covers a multitude of sins. Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another. As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace.
Even the angels help to give grace:
Revelation 1:4-5a John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ . . .
it was nice of John to add in Jesus Christ at the end, along with his own and the angels' giving of grace, just so we'll remember that there is but one mediator of God's grace. Not a lot of "monergism" there, I reckon . . .]
This is especially difficult when the comments are from Pope Benedict XVI: "We implore you to have pity today on the nations that have gone astray, on all Europe, on the whole world, that they might repent and return to your heart."
There is nothing whatever wrong with this prayer, or the Holy Father's reciting of it. It is perfectly orthodox. I would caution young Catholics and those considering the Church against judging high forms of Catholic pious expression. These things are not simple. It takes years to learn to appreciate them and to spiritually "resonate" with them, so to speak. One cannot do that in a few months' time.
Believe me, I'm still learning lots of things all the time, and I've been a Catholic for 18 years, and defend the Church almost on a daily basis. I consider myself to have a fairly strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin, but there are still some prayers that strike me even now as "excessive."
But the difference is that I recognize the limitation in myself, from years or Protestant and secular thinking (32 years, before I converted). I acknowledge that I am insufficiently Catholic, rather than concluding that the Church is insufficiently correct or biblical. It is because my "lens" through which this material is "filtered" is not yet fully Catholic, or without impurities that blur my vision and reception, that I think any of it is excessive, not because it actually is.
It's fine to say that one doesn't fully understand something, but to start judging popes and the Church when one still personally has a great deal to learn about the faith; that is where it becomes wrong, in my opinion, and presumptuous. It requires a lot of humility to admit to ourselves that there are things we don't yet know: that saints and doctors of the Church have pondered and thought about for centuries.
This is one such instance. This is how a Catholic thinks. He or she bows to the superior wisdom of the Church of the Ages and recognizes that it is Holy Mother Church that determines truth and falsehood in the end, not the lone individual, stock-full of many biases and cultural / philosophical / religious (sometimes ethnic) influences hostile to the Church.
I wouldn't expect a brand-new Catholic who is barely starting to understand Mariology in all its fullness, to grasp a prayer like this. It would be like asking a person who just learned their time tables, to comprehend algebra, or calculus, or trigonometry. Does that make any sense?
Mariology and Marian veneration is a very high level of spirituality. That's precisely why millions of Protestants don't engage in it at all. They have jettisoned this whole aspect of Christianity from their faith, and have never learned about it. Every Protestant has to "unlearn" that built-in hostility and then be willing to learn to think in a very different way: a Catholic, traditional way (that is, when closely examined, more deeply and profoundly "biblical" than any form of Protestantism).
The way to deal with this is not to quickly determine that the pope is wrong, or sinful, or that this is proof that Catholicism isn't perfect (like every other option out there). No; it is a time to dig in and do some serious study, to understand why these expressions are used, and why they seem so foreign and "unbiblical" and "excessive" to us (if that is how we feel about it).
There are reasons for these things. We are what we eat. We take in the philosophy of our surroundings. America was a thoroughly Protestant country, and now is increasingly a secular one. American thought is not exactly renowned for its deep understanding of the Catholic worldview. We all deal with this. It's a constant process. Romans 12:2-3 states:
Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him.
It's like any debate. We shouldn't feel that we can comment authoritatively on the wrongness of some other position (much less in public!) until we have first learned about that thing inside and out, and know the position as well or even better than our "opponents" who hold it.
Now, as to young Catholics and all aspects of Catholic Mariology; sorry, there are a ton of things that have yet to be learned. But if you already know pretty much that the Catholic Church is the One True Church and the fullness of the faith, then I would strongly urge you to be most reluctant to judge her devotions, no matter how difficult it may be for you at this time to completely understand the basis of them.
In this instance, there is a quick judgment upon a holy person who has been deemed to be "Blessed" by Holy Mother Church (and upon the present Holy Father: who is himself an extraordinary theologian: not all popes are). Does anyone really think that his Mariology would be horrendously heretical, seeing that he has been declared "Blessed"? The Church takes painstaking care to make sure everyone who is being considered for sainthood has orthodox views.
Here, we are talking about Blessed Bartolo Longo (see Wikipedia). His writings are used as part of the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary.
You can read the original prayer that the Holy Father recited in an article about it. But be prepared to be jolted yet again if you are not familiar with the most florid expressions of Catholic Marian piety. I reiterate what I stated above: if these things trouble you, it is a time for you to start from scratch and learn the basis of this sort of Marian piety in Catholic spirituality. Resolve to learn, not to judge. That is my advice, for whatever it is worth. The newest person on a sports team does not immediately start judging the actions and decisions and rationales of the coach, does he? Is it not his place to be quiet and to learn a bit before taking on the coach (if he ever does so)?
First of all, like all truly authentic Marian piety, this prayer is not without many references to Jesus Christ, Whose ultimate authority as God is always presupposed and deeply ingrained in the consciousness of Catholics who are also devoted to Mary. When one presupposes something they do not always mention it again and again. Outsiders may misunderstand and think that the assumed thing that is not always mentioned in every other sentence, is therefore, denied, but that doesn't follow, logically, at all. That said, here are some references to Jesus in the prayer:
. . . redeemed through the blood of our sweet Jesus . . .
. . . That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. . . . [four times, recurring in the prayer]
. . . we, . . . are the first who crucify Jesus in our hearts . . .
. . . the testament of our dying Redeemer. And this testament of a God, sealed with the blood of a Man-God, appointed thee our Mother, the Mother of sinners. Thus, as our Mother, thou art our Advocate and our Hope.
. . . yet wound the loving heart of thy Son.
Did not Jesus entrust to thy hands all the treasures of his graces and mercies?
The divine Child we behold on thy knees, . . .
Certainly no Protestant could object to any of these references to Jesus. They're in there, and they can't be dismissed and discounted. I can see that probably the most controversial passage in the prayer would be the line:
Thou art almighty by grace, and therefore thou canst save us.
Before anyone drops dead from shock, this is perfectly explainable in an orthodox, biblical sense. The language of "save" is (as I have shown above) perfectly biblical. The Bible teaches that God uses His creatures to distribute His grace, that always originates from Him and He alone. Paul uses the same language.
Catholics believe that God uses Mary in the distribution of grace, even for all graces received (yes, that is firm, longstanding Catholic doctrine, reaffirmed by all recent popes: just not yet defined at the very highest dogmatic level). God can do that if He so chooses. It is neither impossible nor contrary to the Bible, nor denigrating of God. It is, we believe in faith, how God chose to act. Here one who is just starting to explore Catholic Mariology, needs to take a deep breath, relax, and read a few elementary, prerequisite treatments of the topic. I have provided a few of those myself (in addition to the two I mentioned above):
Those who want to pursue the topic in greater depth can read many more papers on my Blessed Virgin Mary web page.
I've written about the language of "almighty" as applied to Mary before, but I'm having difficulty finding it. No matter; I remember the argument. The definition of the word "almighty" is not limited to reference to God alone, as literally all-powerful. It can also have a second meaning of "great power." For example, Merriam-Webster online, gives as a second definition:
relatively unlimited in power
almighty board of directors>b: having or regarded as having great power or importance almighty dollar>
Note that in the prayer, Mary is "almighty by grace," which precisely expresses that whatever power she has comes from God, by grace. God needs no grace; only His creatures do, including Mary, who was saved by her immaculate conception, by the sheer grace of God. God gives her extraordinary grace to be very powerful ("almighty" in the second permitted sense of the word).
Dictionary.com confirms the above, in its first entry, from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2006):
2. having very great power, influence, etc.: The almighty press condemned him without trial.
There seems to be some fundamental objection also, to referring to Mary's "heart." But that is derived from the longstanding Catholic pious tradition of devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary (see the Catholic Encyclopedia article on that), which was highly developed over centuries, from an implicit biblical basis in passages like the following:
Luke 2:16-19 And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.
Luke 2:35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul [heart in some translations] also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed."
Luke 2:51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
The devotion is analogous to the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus (see Catholic Encyclopedia article). St. Paul refers to his own "heart" in similar fashion, in several passages:
Romans 9:2-3 . . . I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.
Romans 10:1 Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.
2 Corinthians 2:4 For I wrote you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.
2 Corinthians 6:11 Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide.
2 Corinthians 7:3 I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together.
(cf. Acts 21:13)
Therefore, one could speak of Paul, based on explicit biblical data, in much the same way as Mary, referring to his "saving" of others, and of returning to his "heart" -- that is, to conform to his will, just as he urged his followers to imitate him (1 Cor 4:16; Phil 3:17; 2 Thess 3:7-9), as he imitated Christ (1 Cor 11:1; 1 Thess 1:6).
All I'm saying, basically, is that someone just coming into a worldview will likely not understand some of its most complex points. That (itself self-evident, I think) would seem to me to call for an approach of a bit more reluctance to make the strong criticisms that we have seen: against the pope, no less. It's okay to not understand and even to disagree at this point, but please understand that these are complex matters and have a full justification from a Catholic perspective. That is the point I was trying to make. Sometimes we apologists gotta say things that are a little difficult for others to hear. Part of the job.
As the "novice" coming in, it is proper, I think, to realize that a person that much more wise would obviously have a good reason for what he says, and we can recognize that we may not yet know or fully understand what that reason would be. The Marian doctrines are all solidly established over many centuries. But the least we owe the Holy Father is to understand why he might say such a thing, and not to presume without any analysis and examination that he was saying or believing some awful, indefensible notion.
It's an issue of where the lines should be drawn, and how to properly disagree, within a Catholic framework. This is stuff where new and prospective Catholics have a lot to learn: quite understandably so. I'm not blaming anyone for being an inexperienced Catholic or insufficiently aware of "Catholic stuff." That would be silly. I'm simply calling for a restraint and a recognizing that this is probably the case: over-dogmatism is not commensurate with being new in any given thing or environment. That was my analogy to a sports coach: saying that the rookie on the team doesn't start telling the coach what to do.
I'm saying that anyone struggling with Catholic Marian doctrines (and they are legion!) should also take the time to learn more about why Catholics use this sort of language about Mary. No one has to be in the dark. There is plenty of material out there. I've tried to do some of that educating in this thread, which is my job. non-Catholics can disagree with it. But those considering conversion need to understand that the prayer is Catholic, and is part of the faith that they would be adopting, should they decide to become Catholic. The Holy Father was not mistaken at all, within the framework of Catholic orthodoxy.
That may bother and offend and alarm some folks; it may even set them back on their journey towards the Catholic Church, for all I know, but I can't sit here and pretend that it is not part of orthodox Catholic faith. It is. I would be negligent of my duty as a Catholic teacher if I denied that. Any possible convert can choose to learn more about it and perhaps be convinced of it or not. They're not obliged to engage in every form of Catholic Marian piety even after they are Catholics, or to say the Rosary, or say any Marian prayer if they don't want to.
Apologists and catechists and priests and anyone who is sharing the Catholic faith are, however, duty-bound to accurately explain what a convert is "in for" once they become Catholic (doctrine-wise). Some things are far more complex and take more time to grasp (Mariology being the classic case) but if we don't try to explain Mariology when questions come up we are guilty of selling someone a bill of goods, when they are considering conversion. I don't see the point of trying to do "Catholic Lite" or "Protestantizing" the faith to make it more palatable to Protestants.
I myself use lots of Scripture in my apologetics because that is what Protestants can relate to, and I love to study the Bible in the first place, but I never attempt to water down the faith or not say what it teaches, if asked. This is one such occasion. And that is because I believe that the entirety of the Catholic faith (not all actions of Catholics for all time) can be reasonably defended, and shown to be completely harmonious with the Bible.
If "checking my mind at the door" had been a requirement of Catholicism, I would never have become Catholic myself. I was quite happy as an evangelical. I think my experience was that of folks like G.K. Chesterton and the vast majority of Catholic converts: we were challenged in our minds far more deeply than we ever were as Protestants. I have learned far more about the depths of Scripture, too, than I ever did as a Protestant. The liberation and the joy (even intellectually) come with the realization that Catholicism is profoundly true. What is true will never shackle the human mind. To the contrary, it liberates and illumines it to the highest degree.